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> Posted by Joshua Goldstein, Principal Director for Economic Citizenship & Disability Inclusion, CFI

Last June, in my hotel room in Delhi, I read in the Sunday edition of the Times of India that hiring white girls to work wedding parties is the new status symbol in Bangalore. Though this might sound surprising, alabaster skin as the ideal of beauty (and the status that goes with it) is neither new to nor specific to India. This is not a trivial matter but a deadly serious business.

One need only look at skin whitening products, like Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely”, which are great sellers in the beauty product category in India, Bangladesh, and Thailand—indeed, in 30 countries around the world. The Unilever Sri Lanka website reads: “Today, 250 million consumers across the globe strongly connect with Fair and Lovely as a brand that stands for the belief that beauty empowers a woman to change her destiny.”

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> Posted by Andrew Fixler, Freelance Journalist

Indian financial inclusion advocates enjoyed a brief victory lap and an international spotlight in January, and they are poised to move into 2015 with a renewed push. On January 20, Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was presented with a Guinness World Record for the fastest financial inclusion roll-out in history, the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY). In one week, between 23 and 29 August 2014, 18,096,130 bank accounts were opened through this national inclusion strategy. Since that date the number has grown to over 123 million across the country. During his January 25 joint address with Prime Minister Modi, President Obama commended Indian leadership’s commitment to prioritize financial inclusion for all Indian citizens, and pledged American support.

In a January 27 press release, USAID affirmed Obama’s pledge, and announced its intention to partner with over 20 Indian, U.S., and international organizations with the support of the World Economic Forum (WEF) to work alongside the Indian government “to expand the ability of Indian consumers and businesses to participate in the formal economy.”

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> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research and Evaluation Specialist, and Kathleen Stack, Vice President, Programs, Freedom from Hunger

Recently, Dean Karlan published an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “The Next Stage of Financial Inclusion.” The key points of his article are that while non-profits led the way in developing microcredit for the poor and started the movement for financial inclusion, for-profit companies have increasingly found it worth their while to offer financial services for the base of the pyramid. The entrance of new players to the market, Karlan offers, is a testament to the success of the early microfinance-focused non-profits. However, Karlan suggests that non-profits still have an important role in continuing to innovate in the financial services space. We agree. This is particularly true for extending financial services to people that banks still consider unprofitable: “the too rural, the too poor and the too young.” We would add disabled populations and the “too old.”

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> Posted by the Microfinance CEO Working Group

The following post was originally published on the Microfinance CEO Working Group blog.

The American Economic Journal has published an issue dedicated to six new studies measuring the impact of microcredit. Through a series of randomized control trials (RCTs), researchers have identified some of the effects of expanded access to microcredit on borrowers and communities in Bosnia, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Mongolia, and Morocco.

The researchers reported evidence of positive impacts of microcredit on occupational choice, business scale, consumption choice, female decision power, and improved risk management, but did not report clear evidence of reduction in poverty or substantial improvements in living standards. “These results,” conclude the authors, “suggest that although microcredit may not be transformative in the sense of lifting people or communities out of poverty, it does afford people more freedom in their choices… and the possibility of being self-reliant.”

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> Posted by Eric Zuehlke, Web and Communications Director, CFI


“I took today off because the stress is too high. I was going to borrow $200 from a friend and it fell through. I truly need it. I want to cry and can’t. I need it before the month is out. I had it and lent it to my family and I’m catching hell getting it back.”

– Tammy, age 60, U.S. Financial Diaries participant

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. supplemental poverty rate is 15.5 percent, meaning that 48.7 million Americans live below the poverty line.¹ While poorer households face higher difficulties to make ends meet, households across the lower and middle-income spectrum in the U.S. struggle with income volatility, unplanned expenses, and finding ways to save and invest. But they also use creative ways to manage their budgets and money.

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> Posted by Andrew Fixler, Associate, CFI

Inclusive financial services in Africa are blooming. Between the turn of the millennium and 2011, the number of African MFIs reporting to the MIX increased from 58 to 397. From 2000 to 2014, the gross loan portfolio expanded over tenfold to $6 billion. Between 2003 and 2009, the number of borrowers served by MFIs in Africa increased from 1.6 million to 8.5 million. These numbers represent the development of an economic development tool for economies with very small financial sectors. It is impressive progress for an undeveloped industry beset by sparse human capital, problematic governance, and minimal external commercial interest.

AfriCap, which was the first private equity fund to invest exclusively in African microfinance institutions, and other microfinance investment vehicles (MIVs) funded by social investors have been a key growth factor through capitalizing MFIs and offering technical assistance and training. This interest is relatively new. The African MIV portfolio grew at an average annual rate of 36 percent between 2006 and 2013. This compares with an average growth of 38 percent for investments in the Latin America & Caribbean region since 2006, and 8 percent in both the Middle East & North Africa and South East Asia regions. The strong connection between MIV financing and microfinance sector growth was also noted in a World Bank paper, Benchmarking the Financial Performance, Growth, and Outreach of Greenfield Microfinance Institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa. The paper, released in 2014, explains the relevance of greenfield MFIs to effecting financial inclusion in undeveloped financial markets. These institutions are financed in large part by equity and debt from development finance institutions, as well as a now-significant cohort of MIVs.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

Amidst all the excitement about disruptive fintech innovators it helps to sort out what innovations are actually at play. Australia Wealth Investors, together with KPMG-Australia and Australia’s Financial Services Council, have created a list of the top 50 fintech innovators for 2014, based on a combination of ability to raise capital and subjective judgment about the degree of innovation or disruption the company represents.

I clicked on all 50 (so you don’t have to) to get a sense of where the action really is. Here’s my quick and dirty categorization. It may help to read this to the tune of “The 12 Days of Christmas”, starting with:

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> Posted by Sumaiya Sajjad, Program Manager, Financial Inclusion, The MasterCard Foundation

In Luxembourg recently, I took part in the European Microfinance Week, whose theme this year was “Developing Markets Better”. The event brought together an excellent group of people from various organizations around the world involved in financial inclusion. On the evening before the formal opening of the conference, Accion’s Center for Financial Inclusion hosted a special cocktail reception where I helped to launch the Accion Africa Board Fellowship program – proudly supported by The MasterCard Foundation.

This program aligns strongly with our Foundation’s goal of promoting financial inclusion in order to help catalyze prosperity and reduce inequality in developing countries. As part of that work, we recognize the critical importance of building capacity at all levels of the financial services industry – especially in that segment of the industry serving the poor. We’ve found that strong, committed, and capable leadership can have the most catalyzing effect on entire organizations, improving the quality of their work, and benefiting the clients they serve.

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> Posted by Alissa Fishbane and Allison Daminger, Ideas42

What does it take to successfully design, pilot, and scale an effective new financial product or service? Much more than most would realize! That’s why CFI’s recent behavioral insights workshop in Bogota, Colombia, had a clear focus: understanding the challenges of applying behavioral science to the operations of Latin American financial institutions. CFI asked ideas42 to kick off the day with an overview of behavioral science and its implications for the design and scale-up of financial products.

At ideas42, we use insights from behavioral science to diagnose behavioral bottlenecks preventing people from taking their desired actions, and design remedies that help organizations overcome them. We then measure the impact of these remedies through a randomized evaluation before they are fully scaled. Any successful program that hinges on people’s decisions and actions, as nearly all consumer finance initiatives do, requires a behavioral approach. Read the rest of this entry »

> Posted by Andrew Fixler, Associate, CFI

“Cautious optimism” was the overriding sentiment towards the Indian financial inclusion investment space at the fall 2014 Financial Inclusion Equity Council (FIEC) meeting in Zurich. Four years after the Andhra Pradesh crisis, in financial year 2014 the regulated microfinance market in India saw its loan portfolio grow by 35 percent and client outreach increase by 4.7 million individuals, achieving a record 28 million clients. Although, as FIEC member Christian Etzensperger of responsAbility Investments AG noted, this is “catch-up growth” for India, where only 35 percent of the adult population has a bank account. On an institutional level, the remarkable growth of Bandhan Bank, India’s largest microfinance institution, illustrates the successful scaling up of MFIs. While Etzensperger noted the “dynamic revival of the microfinance sector…partly due to the inertia of the Indian banks”, he also alluded to the significant role played by the policies of the newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, as well as those of the recently appointed Raghuram Rajan, Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Indian investor sentiment in general soared on the news of these leaders taking the helm, a trend that clearly resonates in the Indian financial inclusion equity community.

What have these leaders done to inspire confidence in the trajectory of microfinance?

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Credit Suisse is a founding sponsor of the Center for Financial Inclusion. The Credit Suisse Group Foundation looks to its philanthropic partners to foster research, innovation and constructive dialogue in order to spread best practices and develop new solutions for financial inclusion.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog, except where otherwise noted, are those of the authors and guest bloggers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Financial Inclusion or its affiliates.
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